Arthur Miller, born October 17, 1915 in New York City, died on February 10, 2005 at his home in Connecticut.
I have respect for Arthur Miller’s entire career, but I feel one of his works stands out above the rest: the transcendent play Death of a Salesman. This contemporary tragedy about a small family facing business failure premiered in Broadway’s Morosco Theater on February 10, 1949 (the author would later die on the anniversary of this opening day).
A great play needs a great title (witness A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, etc.) but the title Death of a Salesman packs perhaps the most powerful punch of them all. Miller’s drama approaches its lead character with compassion and understanding, yet the very title sneers at him. The words read like a slap in the face: death of a parasite, death of a pest. This is what Willy Loman feels like during every moment of the play.
In fact, we all know it takes drive and creativity to be a good salesperson. But Willy Loman is not a good salesperson. He is a proud man and a big dreamer, but by the end of his life he has become an obvious failure, an open wound, driving around aimlessly in his car, calling on “important contacts”, failing to close every deal, unable to pay his household bills. Worst of all, he can’t bear to face his family and friends with these embarrassing truths, instead choosing the painful path of denial.
The play curves through several socio-dramatic landscapes. It certainly stands as a critique of American capitalism and the cult of the “winner” (a cult which is still blooming, as in television shows like ‘The Apprentice’). It is also a winsome, affectionate time capsule of 1940’s suburban culture. But the play reaches greatness when it digs for a deeper truth, examining the complex, multi-layered relationships between all the members of the Loman family.
As Willy Loman’s world begins to collapse inwardly, he lavishes unwanted attention on his wife and sons, and we quickly realize that he is attempting sales pitches on each of them. His greatest failure as a salesman is right here, in fact, because nobody is buying it. But Willy Loman does not know how to fall with dignity, and when he finds he can’t put it over he feels exposed, useless, lost. Death of a salesman, indeed.
In his autobiographical discussions of this play, Arthur Miller made it clear that Willy Loman represented his father’s generation (and was specifically based on an unliked uncle, who provided many of Loman’s characteristics and obsessions). Arthur Miller himself, of course, is Biff, the angry older son, the only one who does not forgive his father at the end. At it’s core, Death of a Salesman is a book about a father and a son, maybe even a spin on Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. It is this dynamic that gives the play its mythic, timeless quality.
It may be that I love this play because I once saw a truly great production of it — in a neighborhood theater in suburban Commack, Long Island, of all places. The performers put it over, and I’m sure half the audience was dripping with tears by the final scene. But these were not tears of bathos or sentiment, but rather shock, catharsis and rage at the human condition itself. Quite a lot for a sunday afternoon at the Commack Players Theater.
I’ve heard that Arthur Miller provided two alternate versions of a physical insult in the play — if Willy Loman is played by a small man (like Dustin Hoffman) he is called a “shrimp”, but if the actor is large, Willy Loman is called a “walrus”. The lead actor on this night was definitely in the walrus category, and I’ll never forget how well he brought out the massive contradictions inside this character. Maybe someday I’ll see a great production of The Crucible or All My Sons and then I’ll appreciate those plays more too.